A small, battered volume appeared on my desk one day with the title of King Kong – the  African jazz opera. As it was a title completely unknown to me, I went exploring. What I discovered is an eye-opening slice of South Africa’s cultural history.

King Kong the African jazz opera
Front cover of our volume

King Kong?

Not the gorilla of Hollywood fame, but rather a then well-known, Johannesburg African boxer of the 1950s, Ezekiel Dlamini, who liked to call himself ‘King Kong’. The volume we have is the text of the play used for a musical based on his life and times. There is a fascinating introductory essay by Harry Bloom , the author and an active journalist at the time. Part of his description of Dlamini pulls no punches:

He was a popular idol in the townships, yet he was a bully and a braggart who would thrash a man for giving an odd look or smiling at the wrong moment.

Historical context

When the musical was proposed in 1957, South Africa had already been under the cloud of apartheid for nearly ten years. As a collaboration across racial boundaries, the production was outstanding. Pat Williams (of whom more later) makes this observation in her book:

We knew, … we would be flying in the face of precedent, ignoring social and conventional rules, and breaking the actual laws of the land as well. We couldn’t avoid it. It was probably the first time black people and white had ever worked so openly together on a project which was not in any way political or ‘subversive’…

It was also a unashamed depiction of Johannesburg life as lived by the African majority. Bloom notes almost all the actors had never previously been in a play, but he saw that as a bonus:

[the play] had one exciting ingredient that made it different from any previous kind of musical. The actors were not so much acting, as living out their normal lives on the stage. 

People

In addition to Harry Bloom, there were a number of people who made the musical happen. Pat Williams wrote the lyrics when she was a young journalist. Sixty years on, here’s a newspaper article where she talks about the creation of the musical to promote a book, King Kong – our knot of time and music which is now in the Music Library’s stock.

The composer was Todd Matshikiza . His musical interests included jazz, and western classical music. He was also deeply interested in the lives of his fellow Africans in the townships, and was a member of the Syndicate of African Artists, a group dedicated to encouraging music there. Bloom notes how Matshikiza got some of his inspiration:

I saw King Kong one day coming out of court, … surrounded by thugs. He looked big – big as this desk. He suggested big musical sounds. King Kong walked like he meant to dig holes in the pavement… heavy, falling. As I remembered how he looked, I just went up to the piano and played his theme song.

Pat Williams describes his general musical style (comprised of influences from 1930s jazz, African culture, and choral music) as

drenched in the spirit of all of these, and also expressed, in a way that no words ever could, the energy and sadness of human existence in the time and place in which he found himself.

You might like to dip into this discussion of Matshikiza’s life and legacy:

Arthur Goldreich was the set designer, and the designer of our book cover.

King Kong - the back cover
The back cover of our volume

You can see how colourful the covers are – translate that to the sets that Goldreich designed for the show, and I imagine they were eye-popping. Bloom noted it like this :

The rich, hot colours of his sets and costumes – his first work for the theatre – beautifully capture the moods of township life… 

Goldreich, an abstract painter, was also a prominent figure in the clandestine anti-apartheid movement of the time.

Miriam Makeba started her international singing career by performing the role of the queen of the Back of the Moon, a popular shebeen, or drinking hole, of the time.

Reception

The first performance on February 2nd, 1959 in Johannesburg was a resounding, if perhaps surprising success. Bloom talks about it in these terms:

The play was received with an ovation such as Johannesburg has seldom heard. … Whatever the motives, the Johannesburg public clasped King Kong to its heart.

It toured around cities in South Africa until well over 100,000 people of all colours had seen it. Then, three years later, it opened in London’s West End, which is when our book was published. Interestingly, the front flap of the paper cover has the following:

He [Bloom] believes that the colourful, hilarious, dangerous world of ‘King Kong’ epitomises not only the exuberance of the Africans but their longing to break out from their present confinement.

Pat Williams’ recollections include this observation:

‘King Kong’, with its glorious music and its unchained sense of freedom, fitted well into the atmosphere of the early 1960s. Liberation struggles against racial restrictions and prejudice were part of the Zeitgeist. 

In the summer of 2017, King Kong was revived in South Africa, playing first in Cape Town and then in Johannesburg. The producer, Eric Abraham, is quoted in an article in the New York Times as saying the following:

Somewhere I had heard about the myth of ‘King Kong’ the musical, and it just resonated. The making of ‘King Kong’ reflected a kind of utopia in the midst of an utterly fragmented society. Having grown up in that society, this appealed strongly to me.

Which seems a good place to end this look at a fascinating piece of musical and social history.